In life, he was just another struggling soul in a desperate tide of humanity, one more child born into the horror of the civil war in Syria.
In death, Aylan Kurdi, three, moved the world, the image of his tiny body lying face down on a Turkish beach epitomising the tragedy of the biggest refugee crisis Europe has faced since the Second World War.
“We want the world to see this,” his father, Abdullah Kurdi, said yesterday, collapsing in tears as he emerged from the mortuary in Mugla, southwestern Turkey. A few miles south is the five-star tourist resort of Akyarlar, where Aylan’s body washed up in the waves on Wednesday. His brother Galip, five, mother Rehan, 35, and nine others on their boat also drowned.
“We want the world’s attention on us, so that they can prevent the same from happening to others,” said Mr Kurdi, who felt his children slip from his grasp one by one after the boat in which they were trying to cross the Aegean sea capsized. “Everything I was dreaming of is gone. I want to bury my children and sit beside them until I die.”
The family fled Syria in June, seeking a life away from the bombs, bullets and carnage against which Aylan and Galip’s short childhoods had played out. Denied exit visas to leave Turkey, and rejected for asylum in Canada where they had relatives, they had struck out from the Bodrum peninsula for the Greek island of Kos in a rubber dinghy.
The trip was organised by traffickers to whom Mr Kurdi said he paid €4,000. He told police he had twice before paid traffickers to get him and his family to Greece, but that both efforts had failed.
They had dressed their boys smartly for their journey, Aylan in a red T-shirt and blue shorts. They dreamt that this would be the final leg of a long journey to freedom — but the boat started to take on water. When some of those aboard stood up in panic, it capsized.
“I was holding my wife’s hand. My children slipped away from my hands. We tried to hold on to the boat,” Mr Kurdi told police. “Everyone was screaming, in pitch darkness. I couldn’t make my voice heard to my wife and kids. I tried to swim to the beach by following the lights. I looked for my wife and children on the beach but couldn’t find them.”
The image of Aylan’s corpse, and all the failure of hope and humanity that it encapsulated, pricked the world’s conscience and brought an outpouring of grief and indignation, further fuelling the debate over Syria’s refugee crisis — and the international community’s perceived inaction.
At least 21 people died that night in the narrow stretch of water between Turkey and the eastern Greek islands that has become the refugees’ gateway to Europe. Two rubber dinghies sank beneath the weight of the people packed on to them; up to 16 refugees squeezed on vessels that were little more than pool toys. According to coastguards, none of those who died was wearing a life vest.
Mr Kurdi, a barber, had been determined to give his wife and sons a life far from Syria’s battlefields. They fled Damascus in 2012 for Aleppo, but were driven out again by fighting, and headed for Kobani.
His sister, Fatima Kurdi, a hairdresser in Vancouver, had scraped money together with the help of friends and neighbours to pay the family’s rent in Turkey, while attempting to secure them asylum in Canada — but the application was rejected, despite a direct appeal by Mrs Kurdi’s MP, Fin Donnelly, who delivered the paperwork by hand to Chris Alexander, the Canadian immigration minister, in March.
On Wednesday morning, Ms Kurdi woke to images of her dead nephew playing out across social media, and a call from her brother. “My wife and children are dead,” he wept. He told her he did not want to go on living.
Ms Kurdi went online herself, posting a picture of her nephews alongside the image of Aylan’s body on the sand. “Where is the humanity in the world. They did not deserve this. Rest in peace Angels,” she wrote.
On the Greek island of Lesbos, Spryos Galinos, the mayor, called for a state of emergency yesterday as thousands more refugees poured across the Aegean from Turkey. In Budapest, the Hungarian capital, huge crowds of migrants protested outside the train station, demanding to be allowed to board trains to Germany. And in Mugla, the bodies of the Kurdi family lay alongside the others who died, in a mortuary that is fast running out of space — here, in a place more familiar with pleasure cruisers and jet skiers, and tourists who flock to the sunny beaches along the picturesque Turkish coastline.
In Bodrum, a package-tourism mecca near Akyarlar, the traffickers were still doing a roaring trade yesterday. Dozens of bedraggled men could be seen sleeping outside the bus station, their backpacks and money pouches strapped round them. Later in the day they melted away, boarding minibuses and shared taxis for their journeys to the traffickers’ launching points.
Lazar, a former Kurdish fighter who had intended to travel on one of the traffickers’ boats this week, said that he had pulled out at the last minute. “There were two smugglers, an Afghan and a Turk, and they were crazy,” he said. “They were high on cocaine and abusing the refugees for the fun. One gave his pistol to a small child and made him point it at his parents.”
Local residents, tired of the daily influx of people, say they are running low on sympathy. “Each day just more and more,” said Servet Sever, a taxi driver in Turgutreis. “I used to take them in my taxi but I don’t any more. I hate them, really. I don’t know why they do it.”
Nilufer Demir, the photographer who took the haunting picture of Aylan, said that she felt pain, sorrow and fear when she discovered the corpse. “The only thing I could do was to make heard his outcry. At that moment, I believed I would be able to achieve this by triggering the shutter of my camera and took his picture,” she said. “I have pictured many migrant incidents since 2003 in this region. I hope from today, this will change.”
The mortuary in Mugla stands on a lonely hillside 12 miles outside the town, surrounded by a sprawling cemetery in which most of those who have died offshore this year are buried — far from their homelands and the countries they were trying to reach. But the Kurdi family and those who died alongside them will, at least, be going home. Their coffins were lifted into vans and driven away to the airport yesterday afternoon. By 7pm, 12 bodies were on the way back to Kobani.
The Canadian government, meanwhile, announced that it would, after all, offer Mr Kurdi asylum.
He declined. “I don’t want anything else from this world,” he said.
As a first responder at Ground Zero, Ken George spent up to 16 hours a day tunnelling through the rubble of the World Trade Centre searching for survivors – and, for six months afterwards, recovering corpses and body parts.
Every day as he arrived for his 12 to 16-hour shift, families would thrust photographs of their missing loved ones into his hands and beg him to look out for them. He would tuck the pictures into his helmet, put on his face mask and – despite it clogging almost immediately with dust – set to work.
“I’d crawl 25ft in a space the width of a casket (coffin) and there’d be another 25ft to go and I could feel trucks rumbling over me and debris falling in my face and the darkness closing in and I’d ask myself ‘Should I go the extra distance?’ But I went, because I’d want someone to do that for my kid,” he said.
In the 14 years since the September 11 terrorist attacks, George and thousands of others like him – firefighters, police officers, and city workers who toiled for days on the rescue effort and for months and years afterwards on the recovery – have had to fight for the US government to go the distance for them.
More than 33,000 first responders, survivors and city residents now have illnesses – or are still struggling with injuries. They include 4,385 cases of cancer – 950 of them within the New York Fire Department alone – according to the government’s Centres for Disease Control. More police officers have died of related illnesses in the last 14 years than died on the day.
Post-traumatic stress disorder and multiple chronic conditions related to the toxins and contaminants from the dust and rubble, such as obstructive lung disease, asthma, gastro-esophageal reflux disease, heart disease, have also taken a massive toll.
More than 70,000 people are currently enrolled in a programme set up by the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, eventually passed by Congress in 2010 and named in memory of a New York police officer who was the first to die of “black lung” caused by the dust. It provides compensation and treatment costs of those diagnosed, and medical monitoring for those at risk of developing 9/11-related illnesses.
But the legislation expires in October and the fund it established will run out next year. First responders and survivors are now having to fight for its renewal.
Mr George, 51, takes 30 prescription medications a day and has granulated glass in his lungs. He has had two tumours removed from his oesophagus, and suffers from heart problems, PTSD and respiratory illness that causes him to wake in the night gasping for breath. “First responders are dying like flies. America can spend billions of dollars to take care of other countries; why should we have to worry about whether it will take care of us?” he said.
John Feal, an Army veteran and demolition expert who lost half his foot when an 8,000lb metal beam fell on him as he worked in the wreckage of the Twin Towers, has been to 136 funerals in the last five years alone. He founded the Fealgood Foundation, an advocacy organisation that helped lead the campaign that got the Zadroga Act passed and is now pushing for its indefinite renewal.
“We lost 2,751 innocent lives on 9/11 but we are going to outnumber them one day…It’s probably going to be another 20, 30, 40 years that anyone will ever have an idea of the true magnitude of this…At Ground Zero, no one had a Hazmat suit; it was jeans and T-shirts and baseball caps and yet we were working in a toxic soup,” he said.
Glen Klein, formerly a member of New York Police Department’s Emergency Services Unit – an elite corps comprising the force’s most hardcore and highly trained officers – is now on medication for PTSD and has been hospitalised six times. He suffers from gastro-esophageal and stomach problems that have brought on pains so acute that they brought him to his knees, pre-cancerous colon polyps, asthma and lung damage.
He worked at ‘The Pile’ – the name given to the World Trade Centre wreckage – from the day of the attacks to the following June, searching for human remains and personal effects such as jewellery and identity cards. He lost 14 of his immediate colleagues on 9/11 and has seen scores fall sick or die since – cancers, lung disease, immune system disorders.
“The toll’s going up drastically. I’ve lost numerous friends to the kinds of cancer you just don’t see in those age categories in those numbers – extremely aggressive types of cancer that within six months of being diagnosed, you’re dead. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist or a surgeon to see the common link,” he said. “A lot of us know that our lives have been shortened by doing what we did.”